John Simon, the infamously vitriolic theatre critic who held the top post at New York magazine more or less uninterrupted from 1968 to 2005, died over the weekend. He was 94. This is one of two memorial tributes to his legacy; here is the other.
John Simon is dead, which must be as great a relief to him as to the multitude of artists he reviewed who survive him. Though I knew John for nearly half a century, I never fully understood why he continued to go to the theatre and write about it. In his old age, as his public status and the platform for his writing diminished in stature, I began to suspect that his devotion to his art was partly an addiction and partly a Don Quixote-like quest for an unattainable grail. These are basic elements of the drive that keeps all theatre critics at their work, but John embraced the two in a most unusual way. He did not confine himself to theatre, but regularly reviewed films, books, and music as well. A cultural omnivore whose erudition was as tremendous as his constant need for new works to evaluate, he searched through every creation he confronted to determine its flaws.
All critics have a negative side to their vision, but for most of us it is simply an aspect of life that we know we must keep in balance by playing it off against a work’s positive elements; eventually, as we mellow, the negativity becomes a sort of tic, a mannerism that both we and our readers know to be there, but clearly not our primary reason for writing. With John, however, the negativity was the vision. He embraced the tic and built his critical persona on it, till many people wondered if he cared for the theatre at all, and stopped reading him except when they felt in the mood for a good dose of vitriol.
This Frankenstein’s monster of a critical persona brought John both celebrity and excoriation. Relishing the celebrity, he soon found the excoriation symbiotically joined to it, and began to play up to the combination to the point where it became hard for him to admit that he had actually liked something. I remember once, at the intermission of a deeply misguided Shakespeare production by the late André Ernotte, John was ranting to several colleagues—his habit of vociferating at intermissions was notorious—about Ernotte’s supposed ineptitude and lack of talent. When he paused for breath, I said quietly, “But John, you liked his Feydeau production at BAM last year.” Caught off guard, he blurted, “Oh, that was wonderful!”—then, realizing what he had said, he quickly went back to belaboring the Shakespeare performance.
This and a number of similar incidents confirmed for me that there was a real John Simon, who had a real and lifelong passion for the theatre, but who had trapped himself into this one essentially hostile way of expressing it. I never tried to talk to him about it—with John, it was simpler and wiser, on the whole, even for colleagues, to keep one’s distance—but I often felt a twinge of grief at the idea that he had devoted his life to a method of work that could only make him increasingly unhappy. Here was a man, elegant, articulate, and vastly knoweldgeable, fluent in at least half a dozen languages, whose gifts of mind gave nothing back to the arts he wrote about except a few unkind remarks that made fun of someone’s performance, ethnicity, physical attributes, or, with a pun, on his target’s name. (“If this is Norman Wisdom, I’ll take Saxon folly.”) Other theatre critics keep such darts in their rucksacks for occasional use; John lived by them.
It is saddening for me to say this, but I doubt that he ever wrote anything which could make a novice reader feel that the theatre (or film, or literature, or music) was an art worth pursuing, or worth attending to, as having some value for civilization. John published many books collecting his reviews, and I read through most of them, but I don’t recall them offering me any insight on why I should care about a given work, or about the art as a whole. I gave them away.
I would be the first to admit that this aspect of criticism, which I find lacking in John’s work, is one that is hardest to achieve, and most of us stumble and look foolish when we aim for it. But for someone with John’s mental powers to have stayed at such a remove from it, while he was busy criticizing this actress’s nose or that actress’s breast, or suggesting that Black actors should only play Shakespeare in whiteface so as not to spoil the historical illusion (and this when the play under review was A Midsummer Night’s Dream!), suggests that something greater than the battle of John’s innate abilities with his marketable prejudices was at stake. He lived in a society that aggressively preaches false values. And he, a superbly educated man of potentially superior mind, bought into them.
That is a tragedy. It is not simply the story of a gifted writer with a notoriously poisoned pen; criticism has held many such stories in the past three centuries. But this is the story of a man who allowed himself to care less about what he loved than about the faults he could find with it, and so played into the hands of a society that preferred being amused by fault-finders to the civilized practice of caring for the world and for other humans. That is not a happy story, and it is one of which the world John Simon has now left behind gives increasing evidence every day. Rather than drape his memory in platitudes, let us construe his life as a warning of how unwise even the smartest man may be.
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